Watching By The People: The Election of Barack Obama

I've been toying around with some comments on the Obama campaign documentary that aired last week, but every time I got started on them, something else came up. Election Night. The Fort Hood shootings. The healthcare bill passing in the House of Representatives. The latest goings on in the Atlanta mayoral race.

Now that there is a lull in the action, maybe I can get back to By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, the documentary directed by Alicia Sams and Amy Rice that HBO premiered last week.

Maybe it's the fiction writer in me, but somewhere around the forty five minute mark in By The People , I wondered how much more this would really resonate with viewers if, instead of watching this solo on a single TV screen, everyone who viewed it was sitting in front of a bank of flat screens, with the Obama documentary playing alongside Amistad, Roots, The March on Washington, Birth of A Nation and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, the sound turned down on all of the screens except for By The People, the images of the past flashing across the screens in your periphery as you watched the main event, creating the most meta of meta-narratives you had ever seen...

...and even then, I don't think any stretch of video tape could possibly begin to contain the enormity of the idea of a black man being the president of the United States of America.

For me, what this documentary showed more than anything was how constrained we are as a nation by the febrile and inadequate imaginations of our media, a group of people who often pat themselves on the back for their self described open mindedness when they are usually the most narrow minded link in the information chain.

Add to that the endless hours of cable news punditry that was dedicated to the fluff, gossip and innuendo rather than the things that really wins campaigns, the nuts and bolts business of organizing and registering people to actually cast a ballot, and it becomes apparent why we hold the news media in such low esteem, even as we take our cues from them, for we are too lazy or too preoccupied to search out the raw facts and analyze them for ourselves.

I wrote over a hundred thousand words during the presidential primaries and the presidential election last fall. And in going back through all of them to put together a retrospective ebook culled from this very blog - an effort which is a lot harder and is taking a lot longer than I thought it would have three weeks ago - I got a chance to relive some of the feelings I had during this ground breaking and historic race.

In some ways it was like being in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant while top chefs prepared a ten course meal - seeing all the hard work and planning that went into it made the end result all that much sweeter.

By the end of By The People, you sense that the editors have done their job well, because they have strung enough emotional wellspring moments together to have you yourself get a little misty eyed when they show Candidate Obama tearing up on stage the day before the election while he speaks of the death of his grandmother.

The most poignant part of the film for me was an unremarkable moment early on, when the cameras were whirring in the Obama kitchen, taking in the sight of Michelle Obama playing a game with her children at the kitchen table when the phone rang. Daughter Sasha rushed to the phone, her eyes glancing into the camera to her right before remembering to look away as if the camera wasn't there.

It was a telling reminder of the way we are all influenced by the presence of recording devices, and how our real life instincts are often muted when someone is watching us. The lives of the Obama family have been forever altered by this election. Every once in awhile, when I see a moment like the one young Sasha had during this film, I want to believe that we can give them their real lives back after this is all over.

But the reality is, we will be watching this family for a long time to come.

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rikyrah said...

I enjoyed this piece, and it's still so fascinating to look back at the campaign. So absolutely improbable and impossible.

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